The Toba Batak people of northern Sumatra create sophisticated puppets (si gale-gale) controlled by a complex system of internal strings and levers that allow them to move in a lifelike manner. Si gale-gale formerly played a crucial role in some funerary ceremonies. When an individual died, his or her soul became an ancestral spirit. For his or her spirit to enjoy the same prominence after death that the person had when living, the deceased's children had to perform the proper funerary rites. If a person died childless, a si gale-gale was created as a substitute to perform the necessary funerary rituals. When in use, the puppets were mounted on the front end of a long, flat box through which the strings passed, allowing the puppeteer, who sat behind the box, to control the puppet from some distance, giving the illusion that the figure was self-animated. Deftly manipulated by the puppeteer, the si gale-gale was able to perform all the required dances and ritual protocols for its deceased parent.
The present head once formed part of a near-lifesized si gale-gale. Recent analysis reveals it to be a masterpiece of engineering as well as sculpture. It retains a complex internal mechanism controlled by strings, which allowed the figure to protrude a tablike tongue of wood. Flexible pockets of rubber, positioned behind each eye, originally held damp moss or wet sponges, which, when squeezed by another internal mechanism activated by the puppeteer, allowed the figure to weep for its departed parent.